His name swept through fashion in the 1970s on waves of cha-ching commercial success and celebrity adulation. That was Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, whose dream of “dressing everybody in America” made him a one-name sensation like Chanel, Dior, Valentino. Of course, Halston began by dressing the rich and famous, from the pillbox hat he put on the head of Jackie Kennedy for her husband’s inauguration to the flowing fabrics he draped on the celebrated women who swanned through Studio 54, Halston soon became as famous as the luminaries who lined up to wear his designs. And then the bottom dropped out.
Since Halston’s story has all the elements — glamor, sex, drugs and a precipitous rise and fall — it’s surprising that it took so long for a Halston documentary to reach the screen. For French-born writer-director Frederic Tcheng, who made his solo debut with 2014’s Dior & I, mystery is at the heart of the Halston story. Sadly, that mystery leads Tcheng to make a major misstep, which is structuring his doc as a film noir. Tcheng invents an unnamed employee at Halston’s company, played by actress/fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, who takes on the role of detective as she tries to pull together the puzzle pieces of Halston’s life (he died in 1990 of complications from AIDS-related lung cancer at the age of 57).
Ignore the film’s foolish framing device and Halston emerges as a fascinating study of a fashion artist who allowed women to live an idealized vision of themselves. But not my making them over into flashy parodies of femininity. Simplicity was the keynote of Halston’s approach. As his friend Liza Minnelli points out, “his clothes danced with you.”
Tcheng is best at examining the designer’s process, making tactile the cashmeres, silks and suedes that became the building blocks of Halston’s style. This gay boy from the Midwest was awed by the Hollywood elite. His marketing genius came in enlisting them — Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger — to wear his clothes on assorted red carpets and public events and become, in effect, unpaid acolytes. He was with them at parties, traveling with his own entourage of models called Halstonettes. He also indulged in the excess of the time, snorting cocaine that caused his temper to flare. Much is made of his damaging relationship with Venezuelan artist Victor Hugo, a lover that fashion illustrator Joe Eula implies started as a street hustler.
Perhaps Halston’s worst decision was signing a $1 billion deal with JC Penney to design a ready-to-wear collection. Halston’s defection “from class to mass” caused snob stores and clients to drop him. The film gets bogged down in discussions of unwise business alliances that resulted in Halston losing control of his company and the use of his name. Tcheng compensates by interviewing Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick, who adds a welcome humanity, notably in her descriptions of how her uncle found comfort in family in his final days.
There is little surprising or mysterious (that word) in the oft-told tale of a talent who lost his way in a tangle of compromise, bad judgment and deal-making with corporate devils. What made Halston distinctive as a designer was his ability to create clothes that defined an era and to do it with the kind of startling originality that leaves a lasting impact. As a film, Halston captures the exhilarating thrum of that creation. And it takes your breath away.